Home expectations -- and Hackworth's need to meet them -- harming the Union

Home expectations -- and Hackworth's need to meet them -- harming the Union

Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Lahoud (13), defender Fabinho (33), midfielder Michael Farfan (21) and forward Conor Casey (6) try to block a free kick during the first half of an MLS soccer match against Sporting KC in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. (AP Photo)

Homefield advantage is one of the most popular talking points in any sport.

In many of those sports, there is a tangible advantage to being the home team. Home baseball teams get to hit last and can even alter their stadiums to suit their strengths. Home hockey teams get to make the last line change and play the matchup game. Home football teams urge their fans to make noise when opponents are on offense and hinder play-calling at the line.

In soccer, people love to talk about loud stadiums, intimidating atmospheres and bumpy pitches. But in reality, there really is no practical advantage to being the home team. Sure, fans are loud, and occasionally you have to deal with a turf field on the road (I'm looking at you, Seattle, Portland and New England). But in reality, there isn't really any play-calling that can be prevented by crowd noise, and as long as you avoid the flying bags of urine at the Azteca, you can play the same game you play at home.

The problem is that nearly every single person in the soccer world thinks otherwise. More than any sport, you'll hear coaches and players readily admit to "playing for a result" on the road. Or "we're happy to get out of here with a point."

And it's not all quotes and rhetoric. Teams openly admit to changing their tactics and formations just to get that road point or simply to give themselves a chance. No one is seemingly worse in that regard than John Hackworth.

Last weekend in Kansas City, Hackworth trotted out a very defensive-minded formation, going with Michael Lahoud and leaving Jack McInerney and Sebastien Le Toux on the bench. In many ways it made perfect sense against a strong team like Sporting. And in the end, the Union got three crucial points that put them back closer (at least in my book) to a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs.

The problem comes with the Union come back to PPL Park, as they will Saturday against a VERY bad Toronto FC team.

As I wrote last week, soccer fans expect to see a fun style and they want to see goals. Coaches -- and likely players -- know this. So the pressure amps up at home, and people like Hackworth know they are "supposed" to win at home. Not just win, but win "with style," and give the fans something to cheer about.

Players also likely know this, meaning wing backs like Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis fly forward a little more often to join the attack. Or midfielders go for the longer, more dangerous home run pass.

If you watched any of Friday's game in Kansas City, you could tell that the Union were more than happy to sit back and let Sporting possess the ball. They stayed home defensively and played an ugly game, "parking the bus" in the back and waiting for a chance to counter-attack. Eventually, it led to a win.

This Saturday night, against a bad team at PPL Park, Hackworth will more than likely name an attack-minded roster. He'll go with two strikers instead of one, likely sit Lahoud and invite Williams, Gaddis or Fabinho to go forward up the wing.

It hasn't worked.

The Union have scored just five more goals at home this season than their opponents -- the third-worst differential in the league behind basement-dwellers Chivas USA and Toronto FC. On the road, however, the Union have a goal differential of minus-six -- a number that while seemingly unimpressive, ranks in the top third of the league.

I'm not arguing that Hackworth should bunker in at home and play for a lucky win. I want to see goals as much as anyone else. But there needs to be a middle ground. And there needs to be a way for the Union to score goals at home without leaving gaping holes in the back.

The Union tied Toronto back in April at PPL Park. Toronto was just as bad back then as they are now.

Hackworth can't afford a draw on Saturday night. And if that means he has to win ugly, then he needs to ignore the expectations and do whatever it takes.

NFL Playoffs: Matt Ryan, Falcons dismantle Packers to reach Super Bowl LI

NFL Playoffs: Matt Ryan, Falcons dismantle Packers to reach Super Bowl LI

The Atlanta Falcons are headed to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after routing the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game.

Matt Ryan threw for four touchdowns, including a 73-yard catch-and-run for a highlight-reel score by star receiver Julio Jones. The defense played just as crucial a role in containing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense.

Rodgers had 287 yards with three touchdown passes and an interception. But the Falcons got to Rodgers with pressure and forced two Green Bay turnovers. Rodgers was outplayed by Ryan, who even ran for a 14-yard touchdown.

Atlanta will play either New England or Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Houston.

The only other time that Atlanta made the Super Bowl was in the 1998 season. The Falcons lost 34-19 to the Denver Broncos.

The Packers fell in the NFC title game for the second time in three seasons.

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

Two of the country's top prospects faced off in the Pac 12 this week while a top 10 forward saw his season come to a premature close. However, we begin this week with the breakout performance by Jonathan Isaac.

Jonathan Isaac, forward, Florida St. (6-11/205)
Isaac's potential had everyone in the basketball world's curiosity. Now his play on the court has their attention. The Seminoles hosted No. 15 Notre Dame, which had yet to lose in ACC play before the Wednesday game. 

The freshman forward dominated in the 83-80 win. He had 23 points on 7 for 9 shooting from the field. He made both his threes, all seven of his free throws and also had one assist. His other stats were also otherworldly. He picked up 10 rebounds and had seven(!) blocks, including one on a late Notre Dame shot to get back into the game after he'd put the Seminoles ahead with a three. All this was in just 25 minutes

He followed it up with a similar game against Louisville. In 28 minutes, he had 16 points on 4 for 7 shooting, making one three and, again, all seven free throws. Add in two assists and two blocks to aid in the 73-68 win. Isaac has shown himself to be an athletic freak, a potential stretch-four at the next level and one with tremendous defensive potential, displayed with his nine blocks this week.

OG Anunoby, forward, Indiana (6-8/235)
Anunoby has had an uneven season, but he, at the very least, showed flashes of the ability that make him a top player for this year's draft class. However, a knee injury suffered on Wednesday finished off Anunoby's season, forcing him to undergo surgery that will keep him off the court for the rest of Indiana's schedule.

This may knock him out of the 2017 draft entirely. As a freshman last year, his NCAA Tournament performance was enough to make him a lottery pick in an even weaker draft field than the upcoming one. He chose to remain in school and it isn't farfetched to believe he will return to Indiana for his junior year to get more seasoning, a better draft field and another year of education.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
There are going to be quite a few marquee matchups in the Pac 12. One of the first this year came in the form of UCLA-Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday. The No. 3 Bruins lost, 96-85, but that had nothing to do with Ball's standout performance (more on the Wildcats below). He pushed the ball in transition, drove to the hole with ease and made 4 of 8 threes with his quirky shot. 

He had 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting and had eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block. When you watch Ball score so naturally, it's easy to forget his potential as a point guard, but then he whips up beautiful assists as he did many times on Saturday. The freshman has everything you want in a point guard.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
The No. 14 Wildcats picked up their biggest win of the year, moving to 7-0 in conference play. As you can expect, Markkanen had a big game to push Arizona past UCLA. He had 18 points on 6 for 10 shooting, was 3 for 3 from three and made three free throws, all which grabbing seven boards. Like Isaac, he is a tantalizing talent as a stretch-four, hanging out around the perimeter and spotting up for threes well.

He now has 16 made threes in his last four games and has averaged over seven boards in that stretch. He's not unbelievably thin like many fours his age. The freshman really can battle down low and get his shot, and he justifies his prospect status on a game-by-game basis with his ability.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington (6-4/195)
Washington lost on Saturday, moving to 9-10 and 2-5 in conference. But it's worth talking about Fultz's standout Wednesday night. The freshman willed his team back from 17-points down with a 37-point performance en route to an 85-83 OT win over Colorado. In 43 minutes, he was 13 for 24 from the field and 11 for 15 from the free throw line.

Don't think he's just a scorer, though. He had eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks, doing it all for the Huskies as he usually does. The freshman sensation was 0 for 2 from three, but he is normally efficient from beyond the arc. He alone is the reason to watch the under .500 Huskies.

While the 9-10 Huskies are unlikely to make a late run towards March Madness, the strong Pac 12 should provide many marquee matchups for Fultz. He faces off vs. a stout Arizona team next Sunday afternoon. Six days later, the long awaited matchup between Fultz and Ball up in Seattle goes down with presumably many scouts in attendance.

Quick Hits

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
Twenty-seven points on 9 for 14 shooting, 4 for 7 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, two steals and four turnovers in an 85-69 win over No. 24 South Carolina.

Josh Jackson, guard/forward, Kansas (6-8/203)
Fifteen points on 6 for 14 shooting, 2 for 5 from three, 1 for 3 on free throws, five rebounds, two assists, four steals and six turnovers in a 79-67 win over Texas.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
Fourteen points on 4 for 9 shooting, 1 for 4 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, three turnovers and five fouls in a 70-58 win over Miami.